- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — At a time of rage and intolerance throughout much of the Muslim world, Malaysia stands out as a source of hope that Muslims and non-Muslims can live together in a Muslim-majority nation.

The Southeast Asian nation, whose flag bears the Muslim crescent and moon, has made considerable economic gains.

Its majority Muslim population has coexisted peacefully with the 40 percent non-Muslim population, mostly Chinese and Indian.

In addition, no major incident of violence has been committed in the name of Islam on Malaysian soil.

It’s no wonder Muslim and Western leaders hold Malaysia in high esteem.

The hat-tipping is set to continue when Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi delivers a keynote address at the sixth Asia-Europe Meeting in Finland next month.

The European Union wants Mr. Abdullah to share Malaysia’s success in the areas of race relations and interfaith issues.

If the past is any indication, Mr. Abdullah will claim tolerance and unity as enduring traits of the Malaysian people. He will swear by Islam Hadhari (Civilizational Islam), a political and ideological interpretation of the faith that stresses moderation and technological and economic competitiveness.

But back home a different reality is unfolding under Mr. Abdullah’s watch, one that raises questions about his commitment to Islam Hadhari and may have far-reaching implications for what is known as a “model Islamic democracy.”

Hard-line Muslims have grown irate in recent months over efforts to establish a commission to enhance understanding among Malaysia’s various faiths.

The latest protest was on July 22, when a private organization named Article 11 gathered in an upper-floor hotel ballroom in the state of Johor Bahru.

The organization wants the Malaysian government to guarantee equality and freedom of worship as the supreme law of the land.

About 300 Muslims scowled from behind a police line at the hotel entrance, brandishing signs that said, “Don’t touch Muslim sensitivities,” “Destroy anti-Muslims” and “We are ready to sacrifice ourselves for Islam.”

In May, hard-liners threatening to storm an Article 11 venue brought the forum to an abrupt end.

Mr. Abdullah has responded to the tensions by cracking down — not on the hard-liners, but on Article 11.

“Do not force the government to take action,” he warned the organization.

He accused Article 11 of playing up religious issues and threatening to shatter Malaysia’s fragile social balance by highlighting “sensitive” issues.

It is an article of faith in Malaysia that “sensitive” issues should not be discussed openly.

Yet it is these same issues — race, religion and a longtime affirmative action program benefiting the majority Malays — that are dear to many Malaysian hearts.

The issues are discussed passionately, albeit behind closed doors, within one’s own racial community.

Mr. Abdullah has issued a stern warning to journalists to stop reporting on issues related to religious matters.

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